(These names have all been changed.)
Sara, her mouth always half-open, barely able to walk, her head always flopping around like she was unsure how to keep it mounted on her body. Unable to really talk other than to say her sister’s name over and over again: “Where Wanda?” Instead of being at the club, this girl almost certainly needed to be involved in some kind of developmental therapy program.
Wanda, the girl with the biggest brown eyes you’ll ever see in your life. “What did you do today, Wanda?” I’d always asked. She’d think for a moment, then reply: “Pwayed.”
Taylor, the 6-year-old with a lisp who always ran with his hands held in a certain kind of way that made you think that he was almost definitely going to grow up to be homosexual. He loved singing a song about ants on a log. Playing Patty Cake was enough to send him into convulsions of ecstasy.
Jocelyn, one of my best buds at the Club. A little headstrong and stubborn. She had this way of hugging that consisted more of climbing all over your body like it was rock-climbing wall. When she smiled it looked like her teeth were all crowded together, like there wasn’t enough room in her mouth for them all.
Alexis E., either Jocelyn’s cousin, brother or foster sibling (it was always hard to tell family relations at the Club). “HI JUJEE!” he would always screech out whenever he saw me. Also a hanger-oner.
Brian A., one of my earliest buds at the Club. He was always crying over everything. I fetched a ladder to get his bouncy ball out of the nasty-ass vent. He wanted to be a tattoo artist when he grew up and was always drawing dragons and other crazy designs on the back of scrap paper. He was also completely obsessed with and addicted to playing computer games.
Alexis V., my earliest nemesis at the Club. Two suspensions later, he is pretty sweet. I think I just got off on the wrong foot early on with him just because of my own early nervousness and uncertainty about how to work with kids (needless to say, I’ve definitely learned a lot.) Our relationship thawed from him always mimicking what I said in a retarded-sounding voice and shouting “come here baby!” to us playing Speed and him helping me to make ice cream with the younger kids.
Adam, the 6-year-old who was taken away from his mom ’cause she was sexually abusing him. I learned this from his aunt after several incidents in which she had to be called because he kept unzipping his pants and rubbing himself on other kids. “Give me a kiss!” he was always saying to me, puckering his lips up. God, the whole situation was just so wrong in so many ways. Imagine how much therapy this kid is going to need later on.
Daniela, the sweetest angel girl. Scars on her face from the time she fell off her uncle’s motorcycle. When she first showed up with the scabs I was speechless, thinking that someone (parent, schoolmate) had beat the shit out of her (which is usually the case when kids show up with injuries.) Always gave tours to the new kids and parents visiting the Club. She’s gonna grow up to be something, just you wait and see.
Matthew, one of the autistic kids. Always shouted “Boo!” at me. He liked asking me, “Julie, Knock Knock,” and then responding to my “Who’s there?” by saying things like “Do You Know Where Tinky Town Is?” Something about the way he spoke just demands capital letters.
Colin, one of the Club’s biggest characters. Another one of the autistic kids (probably Asperger’s.) When he’s sweet, he is very, very sweet (except for his unfortunate boob-grabbing stage), but when he gets into one of his tempers, he is just wretched. This is the kid who screamed at me “You’re the meanest staff EVER!” before throwing a chair at me. A wonderfully creative mind though—so imaginative. One of the best ways to get him to go to meeting was to tell him that he needed to go on an undercover mission for the Autobots (I know more Transformers lingo than I ever thought I would need). He’s probably going to grow up to be an artist or author, or video game designer (maybe all three.)
Jonah, yet another one of the autistic kids. Definitely, definitely Aspergers. They were my homeboys, I guess. Glasses with a Pillsbury doughboy-like face. Man, this kid was difficult to deal with. A biter and a hitter. All he ever wanted to do was play on the computer or talk about Pokemon. Very smart though. He liked to run over to me making squeaking noises and give me a big hug.
Benito and Miguel, brothers: Benito so fat with his mouth permanently half open. Always showing up with their identical new shoes and haircuts, buzzcuts with star designs.
Alex and Francisco, brothers. Bullies, yet capable of being so sweet and creative. During my spiel about not picking flowers in people’s yards while walking to the park, he raised his hand and said that he would like to add something, and told the other kids that they shouldn’t pick flowers in the park because they were planted there by the federal government. Francisco had a shy, soft-spoken way of slightly dragging his feet behind everyone and absolutely loved soccer.
I could go on and on. The main thing is the names, all of them, so many of them. Araceli and Roman. Samantha and Florencia. Orlando and Salvador. Noe C., with his big smile. Bethlehem and Fatinah from Ethiopia. “I need my Julie!” Fatinah would always say, running over to give me a hug. Nate and Nubia from Somalia. Brisa from Guatemala, who left her plastic bag full of her wet towels and clothes at the park that I walked all the way back to fetch. Henry C. from Guatemala, so charming and yet so troubled, capable of calling someone a motherfucker and socking them, then laughing it up and hugging his skinny little arms around my waist minutes later. He disappeared; I wonder where he went. Chubby Juan, chubby Jesus and his skinny, spiky-haired eternally trouble-making younger brother Ziggy. (“ZIGGY!” is the most common shout you’ll hear echoing off the Club hallways). James and Tristen, twins, always drinking out of the toilet. Aldo, Oscar and Leti, triplets. Alma with the unpronounceable last name, only 6-years-old and her face framed by dark hair, it was already clear she was going to grow up into a real beauty. Jacqui, all business-like, sharing her food (mostly spicy Cheetos) with the staff. Citlali, so pretty and such a quiet, well-behaved kid, who loved looking up the names of faeries on the Internet. Rigoberto, so good-natured and easy going, with this weird layer of dried skin circling all around his lips, I don’t know if they were mega chapped or what. Pablo and Marta, who could barely speak English. Marcus, Alicia and A.J., siblings always traveling in a clique together, so polite yet withdrawn. That’s the case with so many of the middle-schoolers; their social cliques just become their entire world, and everything else (school, family, the future) just falls by the wayside.
So many kids, most of them related to each other somehow. I never, ever thought I would remember the names and faces and individual personalities of 400+ children. I’ve been reading a lot of Borges, Piglia and Cortazar short stories lately, which have appropriately mirrored that labyrinthic feeling. There’s a lot of stuff in there about circles without centers, doubles, mirrors, mysterious deaths, tigers roaming without explanation through houses, ghosts without faces. It all feels strangely and compelling appropriate as I get ready to leave for England on Monday with Corey. I want to bring Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Mrs. Dalloway along with me to reread; somewhere along the way I want to find the time to read Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler. I want to continue exploring labyrinths in fiction, I guess.
I really like this quote from Borges’ short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Terius”: “The metaphysicians of Tlön are not looking for truth, nor even for an approximation of it; they are after a kind of amazement. They consider metaphysics a branch of fantastic literature. They know that a system is nothing more than the subordination of all the aspects of the universe to some one of them… Tlön may be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth plotted by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.”
Will I ever decipher the labyrinth of the time I spent with these kids?